Hashtags tug at our passions, in love and in war

Message to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey projected on Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco

I found love in a hopeless place. Yeah, some would argue that a Twitter hashtag is something terrible. They can be manipulated by bots and trolls (#ReleaseTheMemo). They can be hijacked by angry users (#TellingItLikeItIs). They can be just all around strange (#KanyesAnalPlaylist). 

The hashtag’s intended purpose — what Chris Messina pitched to Twitter in 2007 — was to bring people together. They do, my relationship being a case in point. I won’t bore you with all ofthe details, but TL;DR TechCrunch’s annual conference uses the hashtag #TCDisrupt and including those 10 characters in a tweet is how I met my friend turned significant other. 

But a recent study reminded me that hashtags are not always something that inspire love between internet users. Rather, they can be destructive. 

Kate Starbird, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and her colleagues investigated how tweets divided us in the discourse around #BlackLivesMatter. The paper published this year showed how Russian bots and trolls used those hashtags to further polarize the conversation. 

Hate speech and violence can have their own hashtags, as well. For one extreme example, ISIS spread propaganda via organized hashtag campaigns. The terrorist organization used the hashtag #StevensHeadInObamasHands ahead of the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff. 

Have hashtags done more harm than good? 

That’s hard to quantify, but they are powerful tools that anyone — from a tech journalist to a militant leader — can employ for attention. I’m not advocating for an end to hashtags, but I think it’s important to understand what their purpose is and how the social networks and their users can fight against being manipulated. We shouldn’t end hashtags, but we shouldn’t let them destroy us. 

We shouldn’t end hashtags, but we shouldn’t let them destroy us. 

“Hashtags’ best feature is also their most deadly bug — the fact that anyone can use a hashtag,” said Gina Trapani, director of engineering for software design studio Postlight. “Hashtags make it easy for any spammer to add so much noise to popular topics they render themselves useless.”

Politicians have used hashtags to rally constituents, but it’s not always the supporters that receive the most attention since anybody can exploit one. 

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced his presidential run in June 2015 he tweeted his campaign hashtag #TellingItLikeItIs. But rather than responding with congratulations, Twitter users vented their frustrations with Christie’s policies on pensions for teaches and taxes in New Jersey. They even took aim at his physical appearance. Yeah, they were telling it like it is, just probably not how Christie imagined it. 

Other hashtags can start apositive movement. We’ve seen that with #MeToo and #TimesUp battling sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. We saw it with #DeleteUber in regards to the decisions made by the ride-hailing company. My former colleagues and I created the hashtag #IBTWTF to publicly air our grievances after our company failed to pay severance and more. 

But has the value of these connections gone down? 

Maybe for some hashtags, according to Clayton Pritchard, product marketing manager at software startup Highfive and formerly of Twitter. 

“The value of using general (#tech, #socialmedia) hashtags on Twitter seems to be lower than [it was] 5 to 7 years ago,” Pritchard said. “It used to be that using those would make a meaningful and fairly predictable impact on the reach of your content.”

When it comes to trending topics and news events, the tools can still be meaningful on Twitter. Though maybe not as much as they are on Instagram. Just recently, Instagram let users follow a hashtag. With the feature, hashtags are no longer about connecting people to people but rather, people to passions. 

But the people and the passions tied to those hashtags aren’t always genuine. For thoughts on what Twitter should do to address hashtag manipulation, I asked Chris Messina, the man famous for suggesting the hashtag to Twitter cofounder Biz Stone. Messina shared his response in full via his new startup Molly, a site and app for questions and answers, part of which I’ll share here. 

“If technology is easy for humans to master, then it’s often even easier to make machines perform the same action really fast.”

The fact that these systems are gamed doesn’t come as a surprise to Messina. He used to work at Google where bad actors also try to game the system by over-indexing on keywords. 

“If technology is easy for humans to master, then it’s often even easier to make machines perform the same action really fast, and to learn from what works and doesn’t — based on a set of desirable outcomes,” Messina wrote.

What should Twitter do? The company already does a lot to battle spam and abuse, he noted, with detection software and a growing team of people addressing reports. Twitter has also directly acknowledged that there are those who try to influence trends. 

“Attempting to game trending topics is a practice as old as Trends on Twitter themselves, and over the years we’ve invested heavily in thwarting spam and other automated attempts to manipulate Trends. We take active measures to protect against trend gaming, such as excluding automated Tweets and users from our calculations of a Trend,” a September blog post on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election reads. 

Twitter reported in September that the company has detected and deleted an average of 130,000 accounts per day that manipulate trends. A spokesperson declined to provide an updated number. 

But Twitter could do more to educate users and be more transparent on how topics trend and the people behind the trends. Twitter’s algorithm lets typos rise to the top of trends as we saw with #LasVagasShooting. In an effort to prevent fake news from spreading, Messina said Twitter should actively certify good actors and label bad ones. For example, Twitter could indicate if an account has shared false information, “either through an external auditing system or through self-certification.”

Messina recommended that Twitter include more detail in the trending topics section of the site and app. 

“In order to help people realize that they’re only seeing a sliver of reality, Twitter should do more to say things like ‘Trending in San Francisco’ or ‘shown to you because you previously expressed an interest in cryptocurrency,'” he wrote. 

Twitter could also easily add more information when it suggests hashtags to users in the mobile app.

When asked the same question as Messina, a Twitter spokesperson directed Mashable to several sections of the site’s Help Center and blog posts about how the trending section works. The site also acknowledges that it can “prevent certain content from trending,” such as hashtags marked by profanity and hate speech. Of course, not everyone will read a blog post on Twitter dot com or bother to check the Help Center. 

The beauty of hashtags is their public nature, connecting people around passions or locations. There’s no restrictions on who can jump in, only reaction from Twitter or another network on whether or not the hashtag or the user can remain on the platform. 

Hashtags are powerful for discussion. As Twitter showed in a 2017 ad campaign called #SeeEverySide, they can bring together diverse perspectives on questions like, Who is the Greatest Of All Time? 

(Answer: Tom Brady #GoPats.)

Yeah, we shouldn’t get rid of hashtags. 

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